The Ottoman Empire and Libertarianism

Every so often libertarians ask, in a speculative mode, whether the re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire would not be a formula for peace in the troubled Middle East. The question is interesting on several counts, one of which is that the regions affected by the Islamic State today, Arab and Kurdish alike, plus all of southern Iraq, plus Kuwait, plus Jordan and Palestine (including the current Israel), plus, more loosely, all of the Arabian Peninsula, were more or less under Ottoman/Turkish control until the end of World War One.

Libertarians allude to the “millet” system under which many different ethnic or national groups co-habitated peacefully for several centuries. Those are pretty much the same groups that have been eviscerating one another for several years and pretty much every time a strong and dictatorial leader does not clamp down on them. There is one large fault in this happy vision: the attempted genocide of the Armenians begun under full Ottoman power in 1895 and nearly completed as the empire was falling apart during World War One.

The millet system of governance should be of interest to libertarians who generally wish for less government, less expensive government, more responsive government and, especially, less intrusive government. Under the millet system, at least when it was fully functional, the Ottoman governor of say, the province of the empire that now encompasses Lebanon and Western Syria would summon yearly the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. He would address him as follows:

“Your Eminence is well I trust, and his family, and I hope that his sons are brave a wise. I am happy to hear that Almighty God has blessed Your Eminence with many grandchildren. And I am told your community is thriving. Now, based on the figures your office gave me and based on my own information, I think that the Greek Orthodox community must deliver to our master the Sultan, one hundred pounds of gold and three hundred fit young men of military age this year. Agreed? Thank you for your visit and may you and your community, Your Eminence, continue to prosper under the benign, enlightened and fair rule of our great sultan.”

Then, the governor would ask over the main Ayatollah of the Shiite Muslims and deliver himself of a similar oration. And so on.

But I must pause for a confession. The quote marks around the above monologue are metaphorical. I am not reproducing a real monologue. Something like the monologue above must have been delivered thousands of times but I must admit I was not present to hear any of them. (On the other hand, I spent time in Turkey on vacation ten years ago and I regularly drink coffee with Turks. And, I like Turks in general.)

Again, the millet system is a good historical example of extreme decentralization and of minimally intrusive government. It was also very inexpensive to administer. It had little permanent bureaucracy to speak of that could grow upon itself and reproduce itself endlessly thus forever shrinking the area of individual autonomy. At the same time as the comparable Hapsburg Empire was developing a large bureaucracy, at the time when territorially much smaller France was perfecting the art of centralized bureaucracy, at the time when the small Kingdom of Prussia was developing the very model of modern bureaucracy that was to become a model for the whole world, the millet system endured in the Ottoman Empire. In general, the Ottoman government was small and it seemed to be treading lightly on the land, you might say. It sounded a little like a sort of libertarian dream.

But, wait a minute, I need to complete significantly the imaginary monologue of the Ottoman governor above. On parting, the governor would have probably added: “Enjoy life and enrich yourselves. Everything will be fine unless I hear too much about you. If I do, bad things will happen to your community.” Or, he did not even need to utter the words. Everyone knew about the bad things that would happen if disorder arose. Some of these bad things were community leaders’ heads on a spike in village centers.

The Ottoman Empire that relied on the light, non-invasive, decentralized millet system was also famous for the fierceness of its repression. And this haven of diversity disintegrated swiftly throughout the 19th century with a speed that must give pause.

The unraveling of the Ottoman Empire began around 1805 when the large and important Egyptian subdivision gained all but nominal independence through an armed revolt and even waged successful war on the Empire. During the rest of the 19th century, the areas of the Empire now comprising Greece, Bulgaria and Romania decisively seceded. In the meantime, much of the rest of the officially defined Empire drifted away, such as Libya and Tunisia. Later, during World War One, the British (Lawrence) and the French did not have much trouble talking the remaining Arab areas of the empire into open rebellion. And yes, there was an attempted massive genocide of Armenians, in two phases. The first phase was under full Ottoman power in the 1890s; the second, much larger step occurred during the waning days of Ottoman rule starting in 1915.

Now, one can argue – and historians routinely do – that the spectacular disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was due to external pressures from the rising, fast industrializing European powers. Yet, the fact that national (ethnic) entities took up every opportunity to leave the Empire does not speak well of the effectiveness of Ottoman administration. The fact that they sometimes did it a a cost of great bloodshed, the Greeks in particular, does not strengthen the idea of contentment of the administered. The fact is that the subject people of the Ottoman Empire including the many governed through the millet system described above seem to have left as soon as the opportunity arose.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire poses a conceptual problem: Did it fall apart in spite of the admirable millet system of government or because of it? Was internal peace maintained in the Empire for a long time because of the virtues of the millet system or because of the ever-present threat of a large and fierce army facing a divided and unarmed populace?

Was the Ottoman Empire taken apart from within, and also from without, because the administrative principles behind the millet system impeded the supply of the means of self-preservation?

Beyond this lies an even graver question for anyone with libertarian aspirations: Do systems of administration that share the main features of the millet system, decentralization, low cost, and low-level invasiveness contain the seeds of their own destruction? Does administrative lightness actually nurture violent intervention from above and/or from outside?

I don’t know the answers to these serious questions. I think libertarians of all feathers don’t discuss these and related issues nearly enough. I suspect libertarian circles harbor their own form of political correctness that paralyzes such essential inquiries. I do what I can. I know it’s not much.

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9 thoughts on “The Ottoman Empire and Libertarianism

  1. Jacques, if you want to look at a libertarian/classical liberal case for the Ottoman Empire you should look at *Islam without Extremes* (Norton 2013) by Mustafa Akyol. I can’t claim to have got round to reading it myself, but I have seen Akyol’s summaries of his argumnents.

    The power of Akyol’s argument in term of Turkey’s political scene has been somewhat undermined by his support for the AKP governemnt until after the Gezi Park protests. He is very critical of the AKP now, but as he was previously known as an AKP apologist (and enthusiast for Intelligent Design theory) it’s doubtful how much of an asset he is to Turkey’s rather small pro-liberty scene.

    In any case I do not endorse myself straight on Ottomanist libertarianism and there are reasons it does not have much of a hold in Turkey’s pro-liberty scene though there are a few who think like this. The problems are endless and complex because the Ottoman system lasted from the 14th to 20th centuries and you can’t really talk about the same system, or at least few historians think you can. The millet system is a term applied late in Ottoman history, while the system was at its peak in terms of the size of the empire, along with it general prestige in the world, in the sixteenth century. Of course at that time, it could be said to have established some version of some liberty with order as good as many Christian states, and to me more power ful than any. I don’t think even at its height though you could say the Ottoman empire had more liberty than the most law governed and tolerant places in ‘Christendom’ and certainly while European thinkers respect the Ottoman system at its height it very much looked like an example of strong orderly monarchy, not decentralised liberty.

    Even at its peak the Ottoman system obliged Balkan Christian families to send one son away at a very early age to be brought up as Muslim convert soldier-bureaucrat slave of the Sultan. The Janissary system, a very privileged kind of slavery and forced conversion, but that is what it was. The Sultan employed black eunuch slaves, transported from Africa, again a privileged position but not really an example of liberty.

    Jumping forward, the Ottoman system started to imitate the west in some respects from the late eighteenth century, following military defeats to Russia. The biggest act of ‘reform’ was the violent repression/massacre of the Janissaries which formed a whole class of soldiers, bureaucrats and Istanbul firemen who were also market traders on the side, blocking the Sultan’s ideas of reform, including the formation of a more modern military.

    Jumping forward again, the Ottoman sultan most revered by Turkey’s current Ottomanists on the whole, Abdulhamit II, suspended the national assembly, pursued a program of bureaucratic-military-technical centralisation, which included the early massacres of Armenians to which you refer. In the end he was overthrown as a ruker (not as holder of the title of Sultan) by westernising reformers (Committee of Union and Progress/Young Turks) who ended up continuing a centralising reform process which alienated people outside the Muslim Ottoman elite and the Anaotlian heartlands of the Empire. Jumping back to the period between the suppression of the Janissaries and Abdulhamit II’s rule, the Greek Independence movement was resisted with staggering levels of violence and cruelty (the Greek insurgents were not always fastidious in their methods either, it must be also be said). By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman system of relative tolerance towards non-Muslims on a communal rights basis was looking less impressive compared with a growing European tendency towards tolerance based on individual rights.

    The ‘millet system’ at its peak provided a way Muslims, Christians and Jews could live together, but mostly as separate communities able to continue communal traditions, within a hierarchy in which Muslims had the real power. As with looking to models of liberty in ‘feudal’, medieval Europe, we may see some liberty benefits in the elements of localism and communal autonomy under a monarchy, but in both cases we are not talking about a system of individual rights or free interaction, we are talking about individuals constrained by communal traditions and hierarchies, along with the hierarchies between communities. If we value individual rights under common legal rights then this is not a model for us, even if we can see some lessons.

    Even at its peak the Ottoman system blocked the spread of printing, one of the major elements of modern liberty. The reasons for the block combine the power of religious conservatism and the guild interests of manuscript copyists which seems to me to sum up the problems of even peak time Ottomanism for liberty. It was a system based on an assemblage of local, communal and guild privileges finding change difficult except through dramatic acts of autocratic rulers. The transition from Empire to French-modeled republic, but less liberal than the France of the time, in the 20s and 30s under Atatürk was itself the last great example of this and was a product of the difficulties the Ottoman system had with peaceful consensual change, even if it did have a few good moments on that score (e.g. the 1840 Tanzimat reforms).

    Finally the Ottoman system was condemned by its own failure to defend itself, the last Sultan could only give into the victorious powers of World War One, while the republican-nationalists, who emerged from the most educated sections of the Ottoman elite, were able to mobilse a successful military struggle (the Independence War) even without control of the state apparatus. A system which can’t win a war is not a successful system, regardless of how sad the importance of war in human history is.

    Arguments now about reviving the Ottoman Empire are surely self-evidently hypothetical only for anyone who does not take Erdoğan’s more bombastic statements seriously. In what way would the Middle East resolve anything by rule from Istanbul, particularly as part of a centralised state ruled by Erdoğan? If the question is should the Ottoman Empire have been prolonged at the end of World War One, the Ottoman government of the war undermined that possibility by massacres of Arabs, along with the leaders Faisal gave to Arab nationalists, aided by devious British and French policy.

    The Ottoman Empire was in the Balkans before it was in the Middle East. Ottoman sultans used the title Kaiser-i rum (Emperor of Rome) after the Fall of Constantinople before they adopted the title of Caliph (leader of the faithful) after the later conquest of the Hezaz (i.e. the region containing Mecca and Medina). There is nothing natural or inevitable about a Turkey leaning predominantly towards the Middle East and nothing inherently desirable about Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Damascus, etc coming under the dominance of Turks; there is nothing obviously healing for Arab Shiite Muslims in living under a Sunni Caliph in a palace on the Bosphorus, not now and not in 1919.

    Ottomanist libertarianism makes most sense for those inclined to paleolibertarianism based on dispersal of power between homogenous traditionalist localised communities. I don’t see it has so much to offer to other kinds of libertarian. If we think about more modern liberal forms, there was some interest in Britsh style liberalism (already at that time in transition from classical liberalism to left liberalism) amongst the last Ottomans, most notably Prince Sabahattin, but this was a minority within a weakened elite, discredited by collaboration with British occupation at the end of World War One, which never had anything like a politics capable of mobilising the elite (very influenced by French republicanism politically and intellectually by the sociological expression of French republicanism in the work of Emile Durkheim), never mind the population as a whole.

    (Yes Brandon I should be posting this kind of thing, in refined and revised form, but I really don’t have time to do this properly at present, believe me I really am in extreme crisis mode with writing/editing deadlines), after a particularly busy semester, believe me I will be posting when I can, and I should be able to manage within the next few months, sorry I can’t say any more than that, but it is the reality).

  2. unrestrained liberty as proposed by libertarians will always lead to the fall of said libertarian ideals because a people who thrives on the concept of “live and let live” is easy to subvert

    case in point people who are told to vote clinton/trump

    libertarianism is forever bound to be a small group of people for the simple reason that mass group dynamics are opposite to the ideals libertarianism represents

    at its core, libertarianism goes against the very notion of the concept of tribe which is ingrained in the human nature, by stating that we ought to live and let people live as they please, without interference

    while this concept can be applied to the nation state level (for now), it is extremely difficult to impose this notion (you must impose it, without it, you have no libertarianism) on the individuals because of the nature of human beings

    for libertarianism to rise, we would need to completely destroy any sense of belonging to a group, because whenever a group forms, other groups form as well in parallel, and they are bound to clash against each other over personal interests, which leads in interference in other’s business (live and let live)

    in essence libertarianism is forever bound to be an aborted fetus

  3. It’s astonishing that anyone would use the Ottoman millet system as an example of libertarian government. At a minimum, the Ottoman system was never based on the idea of laissez faire government, which is the basis of libertarianism. At best, the millet system was a feudal tax farming scheme (as the fictitious conversation in the article suggests) and exhibited the efficiencies and corrupt practices expected from such schemes. The groups and individuals who paid these taxes (in cash, commodities, or men and women) never did it with the understanding that this was a fair price to pay for the security and services provided by the state or the sovereign. As a result, they never felt any affinity to their state or sovereign. This was compounded by the discrimination made between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Sunnis and Muslims, and between Turks and non-Turks (up until the reforms that began in 1836, by which time it was too late to forge an “Ottoman identity”). This was the reason why every minority group (even Muslim ones like Kurds and Arabs) tried to secede (or were easy to persuade to do so) whenever they got the opportunity. These centrifugal forces and the ultimate collapse of the Ottoman Empire really had nothing to do with libertarianism or lassez faire government (which really never existed in the Ottoman Empire).

    Better examples of libertarianism (i.e. forms of government based specifically and deliberately on the idea that government is a necessary evil and that its size and powers must be restricted only to functions that only a government can perform) can be found in England (from the 11th to the early 20th century), the United States (from foundation until the 1930’s), Switzerland (until now), the medieval states of Italy, and so forth. These governments were not only non-intrusive and laissez faire in every respect but also managed to engender a strong sense of belonging and community among their citizens (even in multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian settings). Had these principles and practices been implemented in the Ottoman Empire, we might have had an multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian “Ottoman nation” today.

    My point is that it is somewhat incongruous to question the effectiveness of libertarianism by citing the failure of a highly non-libertarian state like the Ottoman Empire.

  4. This is an article typical of ”an exercise in futility”. The first sentence goes, ”Every so often libertarians ask, in a speculative mode, whether the re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire would not be a formula for peace in the troubled Middle East.”

    I have’nt seen any libertarian asking such a question. Couple of people who raised this question were historians or political analysts. Not being libertarians, they were not interested in liberty/freedom or peace in the contemporary sense of this word. They simply meant less chaos in the Middle East. As any serious student of history would know, despite the Millet system, the Ottoman Empire was never a land of peace or liberty/freedom. The non-Muslim communities were allowed to manage their personal, family and religious affairs as long as they paid their poll-taxes and bribes and did not do anything which the state considered against its interests or the Sheria.

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